The San Marcos River touches hearts in the fastest-growing city of Texas’ fastest-growing county, and threats to it strike a nerve.

Its champions warn that rapid development and the crush of new residents could herald a dark fate for the river’s endangered species and for its critical role providing drinking water to nearly 2 million people from San Antonio to Austin.

The river draws from the San Marcos Springs and by extension the massive Edwards Aquifer. And as people and businesses pour in, more water pours out, said Miranda Wait, deputy director of Spring Lake Operations at Texas State University’s Meadows Center for Water and the Environment.

“The biggest thing is that we don’t overpump the aquifer,” Wait said. “If we overpump the aquifer, then the springs will dry up, and we won’t have the San Marcos River.”

Further threats include increasing development of the land and commercialization of the river as the region attracts more businesses, tourists and newcomers.

Newly built, hard surfaces—like those of parking lots, roads and buildings—prevent rainwater from seeping through the ground and into the aquifer. And too many tubing enthusiasts leave cans and other litter in their wake, dirtying the pristine waters that endangered plants and animals call home.

“I think locals understand, but our visitors and new residents need to understand how important this is,” Wait said. “That’s the reason this town is probably here, because of this body of water.”

Home sweet home

On a breezy day last week, Wait navigated a glass-bottom boat over the deepest point in the river. At Deep Hole in Spring Lake, which forms the mouth of the river, the water is so clear that you can see 20 feet down to the bottom.

An abandoned structure sits Wednesday at site of the defunct Aquarena Springs Amusement Park at Spring Lake in San Marcos. The area is now Texas State's Meadows Center for Water and the Environment.

An abandoned structure sits Wednesday at site of the defunct Aquarena Springs Amusement Park at Spring Lake in San Marcos. The area is now Texas State’s Meadows Center for Water and the Environment.

Jordan Vonderhaar /Contributor

With the Blackland Prairies to the east and Hill Country to the west, “we’re sitting on a fault line right here,” Wait said.

The Coahuiltecans, an indigenous tribe who called Central Texas home until the 1800s, say they rose from that fault line. Archaeologists have dug up arrowheads, tools and even mammoth teeth, among other relics of days long gone.

“It’s a really significant, powerful place—not just for those of us like me who are interested in hydrology,” Wait said.

For some endangered species, there’s no place like it.

The tiny, eyeless Texas Blind Salamander, which resides deep in the crevasses of the aquifer, and the San Marcos Salamander, which is slightly bigger and has eyes, do not live anywhere else. Then there’s the Fountain Darter, found only in the San Marcos and Comal rivers, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

And velvety forests of a long, green grass known as Texas Wild Rice, unique to the San Marcos, thrive in portions of the river.

You can see the grass waving softly just beneath the surface from the bridge in Sewell Park, a Texas State property near City Park.

On a sunny day last week, swimmers enjoyed the water at the park while others lunched or played Frisbee in the adjoining fields.

Jesse Castro, a post-baccalaureate student, swam in a section about 4 feet deep. The California native said he takes a dip at least three times a week, often between classes.

“I used to swim in the Pacific Ocean a lot, and I’d go camping up by Yosemite,” Castro said. “This river is just like those rivers: clear and beautiful.”

Keeping it clean

At a picnic table just downstream, a group of Bobcats dined with their black shepherd mix, Lucy.

Texas Wild Rice waves below the surface of the San Marcos River on Wednesday.

Texas Wild Rice waves below the surface of the San Marcos River on Wednesday.

Jordan Vonderhaar /Contributor

Sophomore Jackie Torres said the river’s clear waters are easy on the eyes and “really cold and refreshing on a hot day.”

She and her friends have gone tubing in the river, and she isn’t concerned about trash.

“When you rent a tube they also give you a trash bag,” she said. “I think if people use those, it will be OK.”

Nevertheless, with tubing companies lining the river and its 72-degree waters, discarded cans, bottles and food prompt regular cleanups by volunteers and city and county staffers.

Such litter threatens native dwellers like the footlong sunfish that turned on its side and reflected a rainbow of colors from the sun as Wait navigated the river. Atlas Environmental, a company that works with San Marcos to keep the river clean, says it has removed nearly 800 cubic feet of trash within city limits since 2016.

In 2017, New Braunfels’ can ban prohibited disposable containers and large coolers on its Comal and Guadalupe rivers, and tubing enthusiasts eager to drink and drift surged into the San Marcos.

The Mermaid Capital of Texas allows cans and certain other disposable containers, though it prohibits glass and Styrofoam.

Wait said that although tubing “isn’t the greatest for the river,” the only such business permitted in the city, Lion’s Club, “does a lot for our community and they give their money to charities.”

“Other tubing companies, like the ones in the county, are the ones we have to worry about because there are no city police or park rangers constantly monitoring that space,” she said.


Beyond the river’s waters — and what gets into them — lies the problem of what isn’t getting into the ground.

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